Affair at Coulter's
Author: Bierce, Ambrose
Genre: Short Story
Though most of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War tales take place on the battlefield, they locate within those battlefields problems of domestic and political identity that have no immediate relevance to the experience of combat. Unlike, for example, young Henry Fleming in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Bierce’s soldiers are always and doggedly more than soldiers: they are fathers and sons, lovers and husbands, citizens with often uncertain loyalties. In fact, for Bierce’s characters being a soldier is often incidental to the elements of their personality that really drive their narratives. Ironically, however—and this is largely the point of Bierce’s best stories—the momentary demands of soldiering irrevocably alter the more permanent social and personal roles that these men attempt to fulfill. Rather than finding in war the possibility of a new, complete identity (as in Crane) or the realization of untested prewar tendencies (as in John W. De Forest’s 1867 novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion From Secession to Loyalty), Bierce’s soldiers discover that the experience of combat directly challenges what they and others around them had previously assumed them to be. One of the most tragic and complex examples of such identity revision occurs in the story “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” (1889) in which the act of successfully doing one’s military duty results in a disaster whose impact is at once personal and systemic. In this story, Bierce demonstrates that the most efficient execution of combat duty corrupts the certainty of the very markers of identity—domestic, military, and especially racial—that establish the war’s own ideological meaning.
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